Pakistan has had intimate and difficult relations with Afghanistan since the former’s creation in 1947, driven partly by border disputes, which persist today, and partly by fears around Afghanistan’s close relationship with India. Pakistan has hosted many Afghans in its religious seminaries and madrases and has supported various insurgent groups over the decades, most notably since its Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI) heavily became involved in Afghanistan since the 1970s. Along with the US, Pakistan provided support and safe havens to the mujahidin in their conflict with the Soviet occupiers. Pakistan continued to support the mujahidin after 1988’s Geneva accords, despite the agreement’s stated aim of promoting non- interference. When the mujahidin factions began fighting each other in the early 1990s Pakistan supported Hekmatyar and Dostum against the Rabbani government. Later it focused its support on the Afghan Taliban, which and supported it with funding, training, diplomatic assistance, becoming one of only three countries to recognise the legitimacy of Taliban rule after 1996. After the ‘9/11’ attacks on the US, Pakistan claimed to have stopped support for the Taliban and put its weight behind the Bonn process, but it is widely believed to have continued to provide refuge and assistance to the Taliban, the Haqqani network and al-Qaeda. The Afghan government has repeatedly claimed that the major need for peace is not between Kabul and the Taliban, but Kabul and Islamabad, with President Ghani claiming that Pakistan has effectively waged war on Afghanistan since 2001. Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban have been strained at times and the Taliban has resisted Pakistan’s attempts in recent years to assume a mediation role. Pakistan’s goal is thought to now be less a Taliban government than one that eventually includes the Taliban as a counterweight to Indian influence.
Afghanistan has been of strategic interest to Russia since at least the 19th century when it engaged in a rivalry with the British Empire for influence in central Asia known as the ‘Great Game’. In the 20th century Afghanistan became a factor in the Cold War. Under Mohammed Daud’s premiership, Afghanistan wavered between dependence on the Soviet Union and non-alignment. When the socialist regime that toppled Daud in 1978 came under threat, the USSR invaded 1979. In nine-year conflict, an estimated one million civilians were killed and the Soviet Union lost 14,500 troops. Faced with the high human, economic and diplomatic cost of the occupation, the Soviets began looking for an exit strategy. Moreover, under Mikhail Gorbachev, leader from 1985, Soviet foreign policy became less confrontational with the West and China on many fronts, Afghanistan included. Soviet troop withdrawal was announced in 1987 and completed in 1989.
It was conducted largely peacefully following ceasefires reached with mujahidin commanders, with some exceptions. Moscow continued to support the Najibullah government in Kabul until the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.
With the rise of the Taliban, which had links to Chechen rebels, Russia lent support to the Northern Alliance and has been generally supportive of the Afghan government since the Taliban’s fall in 2001.As Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated in the 2010s, Russia has been seen to take a more assertive diplomatic role in Afghanistan. In 2016–17 Russia held talks about the conflict first with Pakistan and China, then with the Afghan government, Iran and India, in which the US declined to participate. In January 2018 Russia offered to host talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In April, US officials accused Russia of arming the Taliban. Russia denies this but with the emergence of Islamic State, Russia may see the Taliban as an ally against one of Russia’s top enemies in the Syrian conflict.
Afghanistan first became strategically important to the US during the Cold War, as the US tried to sway the Afghans away from Soviet influence with mixed results. US relations with Kabul collapsed after the 1978 Saur revolution and the Soviet invasion of the following year. The US focused its diplomatic efforts on forcing Soviet withdrawal while also channelling funds estimated to amount to $3 billion to various mujahidin opposition groups being supported by the Pakistan intelligence services. After the rise of the Taliban in 1996, US and Pakistani interests diverged sharply. With the Taliban hosting Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the US bombed targets in Afghanistan in 1998. Then, following the ‘9/11’ attacks on the US and the Taliban’s refusal to hand bin Laden over, President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, which the US led in coalition with the UK and Canada and later more than 40 countries.
The Taliban government collapsed but it would lead a renewed insurgency that steadily gained strength over the remainder of Bush’s time in office. The March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq marked a critical shift in US priorities, which arguably paved the way for a Taliban revival. While handing over the primary security responsibility to the NATO-led ISAF, US troop levels remained around 30,000 for much of Bush administration.
With the Taliban increasing in strength, President Barack Obama (2009–17) pursued both military victory and talks with the Taliban. By August 2010, 100,000 US troops were on the ground. In June 2011, shortly after US special forces had killed bin Laden, Obama announced a timetable for drawdown with security to be handed to Afghan authorities in 2014. The Obama administration explored the possibility of talks with the Taliban and were supportive of the group’s establishment of a political office in Doha. Relations with President Karzai’s government, however, were poor. Karzai, angered by the suggestion the US may talk directly to the Taliban, refused to sign a long-term security deal with the US. The agreement was finally signed when President Ghani took power in 2014.
Troop numbers, down to under 10,000 at the end of the Obama administration, have increased again under President Donald Trump, who in 2017 scrapped deadlines for withdrawal.
India has been a close ally of Afghan governments except during the Taliban era. Unlike most Asian countries, India recognised the Soviet- backed People’s Democratic Republic. After the Taliban’s rise, it provided support to the Northern Alliance, and after the Taliban’s fall became the largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction support. This closeness was underlined by the strategic agreement of October 2011 to increase security and development cooperation, coming amid Afghanistan’s deteriorating relations with Pakistan.
In comparison to other regional powers, China has long appeared relatively uninterested in Afghanistan and has exerted little political influence, despite its economic strength and interests in the country, and the role it could potentially play in rebuilding. In recent years it has shown an increased willingness to be involved in political efforts to transition away from war, proposing a peace and reconciliation forum in 2014 and receiving a visit from the Taliban political office the same year.
With deep historical ties, in modern times Iran’s relations with Afghanistan have been difficult. Iran provided support to the mujahidin in the Soviet era and to the Northern Alliance during the Taliban era. Since the Karzai administration, relations have been strained by the Afghan government’s closeness to the US. The emergence of Islamic State in Afghanistan with its sectarian agenda has made Iran more amenable to working with the Taliban.
Britain was closely involved in the emergence of modern Afghanistan through a series of Anglo-Afghan wars between 1839 and 1919 as it sought to consolidate its imperial interests in the subcontinent and counter Russian influence in Central Asia.
In 2001 British troops took part in the US-led invasion before becoming part of the International Security Assistance Force in 2002. British forces moved into Helmand province in 2006 as it came increasingly under renewed Taliban influence. Task Force Helmand was eventually wound up in 2014, ending the UK’s combat mission. Some troops remain for training and advice.
Established in March 2002, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan is ‘to support the people and government of Afghanistan in achieving peace and stability, in line with the rights and obligations enshrined in the Afghan constitution’. Its mandate is reviewed annually. Tadamichi Yamamoto was appointed as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of UNAMA in June 2016.
International Security Assistance Force
The UN-mandated international security mission in Afghanistan, 2001–14. It was established in 2001 by UN Security Council Resolution 1386 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, initially only to secure area around Kabul, with leadership rotating between countries on a six-monthly basis. NATO assumed leadership of the mission in August 2003 and in October 2003 ISAF’s mandate was expanded to the whole of Afghanistan. Its presence extended gradually as it took over security responsibilities from the US-led coalition. Its expansion to the north was completed in 2004, and to the west, south and finally the east in 2006.
All NATO countries contributed troops, as well as a number of other countries. NATO’s Riga Summit of 2006 saw rising tensions over NATO’s role in Afghanistan. Some countries insisted on restrictions on how their troops could be deployed (‘national caveats’), some of which they relented on, although many continued to refuse to have their troops deployed in the more dangerous southern provinces.
Operation Resolute Support
Operation Resolute Support is the follow-on non-combat mission to ISAF. Its purpose is to provide training and support to Afghan security services and government.
Operation Enduring Freedom
The US Operation Enduring Freedom encompasses US counter- terrorism operations in several countries, but the most notable operation bearing the name is the joint US, UK and Afghan combat mission in Afghanistan starting October 2001. The NATO-led ISAF mission, to which the US also contributed militarily, increasingly took the lead in combat operations from 2006, although US forces continued operations under OEF in several parts of the country. President Barack Obama announced the end of OEF-Afghanistan in December 2014. It was succeeded by Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, which continues to build the capacity of the Afghan armed forces and assist the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support.